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Open Access Publications from the University of California

“We’re Not Ethnic”: Ethnicity, Pluralism, and Identity in Orthodox Christian America

  • Author(s): Sokoll, Aaron J
  • Advisor(s): Roof, W. Clark
  • et al.

This work examines the Evangelical Orthodox Church—a group of evangelical Protestant Christians who, from the 1960s to the 1980s, developed their own ecclesial movement in an effort to restore in the modern world the original Christian church as they believed it would have existed in the first centuries of the current era among the followers of Jesus. They eventually converted as a group of roughly 2,000 members and 19 parishes to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 1987. To understand the conversion event, the present study examines the interconnections of the theological and cultural changes that brought the group to convert. Understanding the group’s conversion from evangelical Protestant to Orthodox Christian reckons with the issues of religious adaptation in modern society. Adaptation occurs in the spiritual marketplace, which arises from and functions within the plurality of religious choices available in the U.S. In the spiritual marketplace, consumers of spiritual ideas not only choose between religious traditions, but also mix spiritual practices and beliefs to match their needs and desires.

Given the divisions of Eastern Orthodox communities in the U.S. along ethnic lines, I show that the EOC members, who as white evangelical Americans were normally unaware of their ethnic identities and customs, were forced to reckon with their ethnic identities while they negotiated this theological shift. Many works exist to address the issues of ethnicity and religion in the U.S. The ones that inform this study most significantly consider the construction of whiteness in the U.S. This racialized concept gets to the heart of the issues in this study because it explains the attempts on the part of both EOC members and certain Orthodox leaders to form a culture-free religion. As we will see, EOC members and archdiocesan leaders both bemoaned the connection many Orthodox Christians felt and still feel with their parishes through ethnicity. The EOC and the archdiocese viewed such connections as inauthentic and impure compared to the spiritual, doctrinal truths of Orthodoxy, which they asserted as the proper bases of connection. At the same time, the EOC and the archdioceses advocated the development of an American expression of Orthodoxy, which they predicated on a rejection of ethnicity.

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